NFL Nation: 2011 back to work FYI NFC

Redskins back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:14
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Redskins held a ton of player-organized workouts, and they seemed to go very well. Organized by defensive leaders London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander and inspired by the camps the Redskins teams of the past ran to great effect during labor stoppages, the Redskins' workouts were well-attended and well-directed. There were days when Fletcher would call plays from a piece of paper he kept in his pocket, trying to help the defense run some of the 3-4 looks that were installed (but not quite mastered) last year. They brought fans out of the stands to run drills with them and generally just had a good old time. It'll be interesting to see if all of that lockout-time bonding pays dividends once the games start to count.

Biggest challenge: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Donovan McNabb is surely gone as soon as they can move him. They didn't draft a quarterback in April, and shortly after the draft head coach Mike Shanahan said he liked the idea of John Beck as his starter. Whether it's Beck or Rex Grossman, who ran the offense late last year when the McNabb plan blew up, the Redskins will be going with an imperfect solution at the most important position on the field. Will it be a season-long nightmare that forces them to draft a quarterback high in next year's draft? Will it be a revolving door with one guy starting one game and the other the next? Will the defense play well enough to overcome it? Will Beck surprise and play better than everyone (except, apparently, Shanahan) thinks he can? Many questions, still no answers yet. At least soon they can start running drills and see what they actually have back there.

Haslett's second season: Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett came to town with Shanahan last year and converted the Redskins from a 4-3 defensive team to a 3-4. It was not an easy transition, and many of the pieces that were in place didn't fit well into the new scheme. Now, every coach who knows about it says it takes two years, not one, to fully transition to the 3-4. So we should see improvement in the way the Redskins play defense in 2011. They still need to add some pieces on the line, find a cornerback or two, and they may need a linebacker if Rocky McIntosh leaves and Alexander can't be a full-time starter on the inside. But the pre-lockout addition of O.J. Atogwe at safety and the drafting of outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan in the first round were good moves. Along with the year of experience the returning guys got last year, they could help the Redskins put together a respectable defense sooner than you might expect.

Key players without contracts for 2011: OT Jammal Brown, CB Phillip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, QB Rex Grossman, CB DeAngelo Hall, LB Rocky McIntosh, WR Santana Moss, C Casey Rabach, CB Carlos Rogers

Giants back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:13
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Giants didn't hold as many player workouts as some other teams did during the lockout, but quarterback Eli Manning organized a few camps here and there, and did some work in various locations with some of his receivers. The good thing for the Giants is that they're bringing back the same coaching personnel they had last year and won't have to spend an inordinate amount of time learning any big new schemes. They're a veteran team that knows how to get itself ready for the season, and Manning and the other team leaders have basically trusted that the guys were keeping themselves in shape and would be ready to go whenever the lockout ended. We'll find out whether that trust was justified.

Biggest challenge: The Giants' biggest post-lockout challenge is in the front office, where contracts must be signed for several key free agents of their own before they can hit the market and figure out what they need. Ahmad Bradshaw, Mathias Kiwanuka, Steve Smith, Kevin Boss and Barry Cofield are among the key 2009 and 2010 contributors who can be free agents, and it's unlikely the Giants will be able to keep them all. Of that group, Cofield is the most likely to leave, as they consider him more replaceable than Kiwanuka and their key offensive players. It'll be interesting to see whether another team comes hard after Boss and/or Bradshaw, because losing one or both of those guys could dramatically alter the Giants' offseason priority list. And then there's the Osi Umenyiora issue. He says he wants a new contract or a trade. They can and probably will tell him, "Tough luck," but if they do, they have to wonder how much trouble he'll make for them in training camp.

Bill of health: There are a number of health and injury issues worth watching as the Giants get back to business. Smith is coming off a major knee injury, and they don't know how ready he'll be. He's a key component in the passing game, and Manning looked a bit lost at times last year when Smith wasn't available to him. The offensive line also had health issues in 2010, and it's an aging unit that probably could use a reinforcement or two in free agency, lest the health problems flare up again and threaten to sink a whole season. Being a veteran team is likely to help the Giants from a readiness standpoint in this shortened offseason, but with age and experience come other potential pitfalls. The Giants will need to make sure to ease some guys into training camp so they don't end up hurt.

Key players without contracts for 2011: TE Kevin Boss, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, LB Keith Bulluck, DT Barry Cofield, S Deon Grant, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, C/G Adam Koets, WR Steve Smith.

Eagles back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:13
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Eagles held a series of player-organized workouts throughout the summer, but quarterback Michael Vick was only there for a couple of days' worth, opting most of the time to work out on his own. They have a new defensive coordinator in Juan Castillo (who was their offensive line coach) and a new defensive line coach in Jim Washburn, so there are likely to be new aspects of the defense they'll have to learn quickly once the coaches can get their hands on them.

Biggest challenge: Constructing that defense. The Eagles need a new cornerback to play alongside Asante Samuel, and they'll probably aim high and try to get Nnamdi Asomugha. It appears as though they're ready to let Quintin Mikell walk, since they appear to think rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett is ready to start right away opposite Nate Allen. But they could add a veteran there to work with the young guys or in case Allen's not fully healthy. They also need to figure out the linebacker situation around potential free agent Stewart Bradley. And Washburn will lobby to add a pass-rushing end and maybe another piece or two along the line. Before the Eagles can set about installing anything new on defense, they'll need to know who the players are who'll be responsible for putting the plans into action.

Vick's backup: The Eagles' first order of post-lockout business is expected to be the trade of backup quarterback Kevin Kolb. Assuming they can get the return for Kolb that most people seem to believe they can (a first-rounder plus, or maybe an established cornerback or linebacker), they'll ship him out of town to Arizona or Seattle or whichever team comes with the best offer. But after that, they'll need to find a veteran quarterback to sit behind Vick and step in if and when the starter gets hurt. Vick has never played a full 16-game season, and his style lends itself to potential injury. And while they like Mike Kafka long-term, he's probably not as ready as Kolb would be to step in and win a game if Vick can't go. Look for the Eagles to explore several possibilities for this role, including the Titans' Vince Young, who might be a perfect fit.

Key players without contracts for 2011: K David Akers, LB Stewart Bradley, G Nick Cole, RB Jerome Harrison, CB Ellis Hobbs, LB Akeem Jordan, S Quintin Mikell, P Sav Rocca, LB Ernie Sims

Buccaneers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:13
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Although he’s only 23, quarterback Josh Freeman further cemented himself as this team’s leader by taking control and organizing the offseason workouts for the Bucs. Freeman’s workouts focused mostly on the offensive skill positions and some offensive linemen. Most of the defensive players did most of their working out on their own. Freeman seemed to strengthen his bond with tight end Kellen Winslow and some of the young receivers, and that should help. But this was the NFL’s youngest team last year, and the lack of offseason time with coaches is going to make for a very challenging training camp.

Biggest challenge: Although the Bucs got a lot of production out of last year’s rookie class, most notably receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, a lot of players still aren’t deeply versed in the system. Defensive tackles Brian Price and Gerald McCoy, safety Cody Grimm and receiver Arrelious Benn all had their rookie seasons end prematurely because of injuries. All indications are they’ve done a good job getting healthy, but they could have used the offseason time with the coaches to really put them into position to take the next step.

Secondary issues: The Bucs are certain they’ll open camp and the regular season without safety Tanard Jackson. He’s serving a one-year NFL suspension and won’t even be allowed to apply for reinstatement until late September. The team can’t count on Jackson's return, although it would be a nice bonus. There’s nothing certain about cornerback Aqib Talib’s situation. He’s facing an assault charge in Texas and his trial is scheduled for next March. There’s the possibility the Bucs or the NFL could take disciplinary action against a player who’s been suspected for violating the league’s personal-conduct code previously. If the Bucs and the league decide to wait on disciplinary action, it’s possible Talib could open camp with his teammates.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Linebacker Barrett Ruud, running back Cadillac Williams, guard Davin Joseph, defensive end Stylez G. White.

Cowboys back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:13
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Cowboys held some of the best-attended and best-reviewed player-organized workouts in the league -- at least before quarterback Tony Romo, who was organizing them, took off to get married in May. Given the names and the ages of the people on the roster, there's reason to believe the Cowboys will be in shape and hungry to get going when they finally get to training camp and head coach Jason Garrett begins putting them through their paces. Assuming Romo and electric second-year wideout Dez Bryant are fully healthy (and they quickly make sure the left side of the line is under contract), the offense should be ready to go. The question is how quickly they can learn new coordinator Rob Ryan's defense, especially with as many defensive newcomers as they expect to have.

Biggest challenge: That new defense. Ryan is bringing in a whole new scheme and will have precious little time to make sure his new charges learn it. It's nothing as radical as changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4, since Dallas already ran a 3-4 under Wade Phillips. But there are a lot of intricacies to what Ryan is trying to coach on defense, and those normally would have been addressed beginning with May minicamps that never happened. Dallas will also be adding at least one new safety and cornerback to the mix and may see major changes on the defensive line depending on the way free agency works out. So Ryan will be teaching the defense not only to the guys currently on the roster, but to some who still aren't.

Tony's team: Lots of attention will focus on Romo. Expectations were sky-high for Dallas a year ago, and the 1-7 start wrecked them all. Cowboys fans (and ownership) are hungry for a Super Bowl title and see no reason the team shouldn't be able to compete for one in the near future. But the quarterback position is key, and people still have their doubts about whether Romo is capable of leading that kind of run. He played brilliantly down the stretch in 2009 as the Cowboys claimed the NFC East title. And while his interception total was a bit high, he was playing well last season before the injury that knocked him out for the second half. This could be the year for Romo to prove to his doubters that he's taken that step forward as a leader. Teammates spoke highly of the job he did keeping things organized during the lockout. That could be a sign of big things to come. If Romo can stay healthy, he should build on what he accomplished in late 2009.

Key players without contracts for 2011: DE Stephen Bowen, OT Doug Free, DE Jason Hatcher, G Kyle Kosier, S Gerald Sensabaugh, DE Marcus Spears

Falcons back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:12
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Like New Orleans’ Drew Brees, quarterback Matt Ryan did a good job of organizing and leading players-only workouts. They were well attended, and all indications are that Ryan went out of his way to start building a bond with rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton coached the defense in those sessions, and that should help him emerge as more of a leader. Most of the Falcons have been in the same system with largely the same coaching staff for three seasons now. They shouldn’t be as adversely affected by the lack of a regular offseason as many younger teams around the league.

Biggest challenge: Although Mike Mularkey’s still the offensive coordinator, the Falcons have pretty much acknowledged there are going to be some changes to their offense. They still will rely heavily on running back Michael Turner, but they want to make more big plays in the passing game. That’s why they brought Jones in, and the fact he and Ryan have spent some time together certainly helps. But Mularkey lost a lot of time in which he could have been implementing and fine-tuning new plays. Training camp will be a crash course for Jones, but there also will be an accelerated learning curve for Ryan and the other receivers who already were with the Falcons because some of what they’ll be doing will be new to them. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau also might have to quickly overhaul an offensive line that could be featuring as many as three new starters, depending on who leaves in free agency. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the priority, but the Falcons might not be able to keep guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock.

Where’s the pass rush? It’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that the Falcons will target a big-name defensive end in free agency. That’s the one glaring need on this team. The Falcons are looking to complement John Abraham in the short term, but it’s likely they want someone who can be his long-term replacement. Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two defensive ends who are still young but already have been pretty productive. Either one of them could be Atlanta’s top target.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Linebacker Mike Peterson, linebacker Stephen Nicholas, guard Harvey Dahl, guard Justin Blalock, tackle Tyson Clabo and kicker Matt Bryant.

Saints back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:11
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Saints got a lot of media attention during the players-only workouts. This team did as good a job of handling the lockout as any team in the league. The workouts were well attended, and quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were running the offense and defense, respectively. The coaches weren’t around, but Brees and Vilma have basically been coaches on the field for the past few years, so the Saints probably weren’t getting away with too many mistakes while working on their own. It also helps that the Saints are largely a veteran team. They also have a coaching staff that’s remained mostly in place. The lockout wasn’t ideal for any team, but the Saints are probably in better shape than most as they come out of it.

Biggest challenge: That’s going to come more off the field than on it. General manager Mickey Loomis and the personnel department are going to have some busy days ahead of them. The Saints have a bunch of free agents, and they want to keep some of them. You can bet Loomis, coach Sean Payton and the rest of the staff already have a good idea of whom they want to retain and whom they might want to target in free agency. The Saints aren’t afraid to bring in guys from the outside, and even after filling some holes in the draft, the Saints still may be looking for help at outside linebacker. If they lose some free agents they want to keep, they might have some other holes to quickly address.

The Reggie Bush factor: It’s clear something has to give when it comes to the running back’s future. He’s scheduled to make nearly $12 million in base salary and count $16 million against this year’s salary cap. The Saints can’t afford to let those numbers stay the same. They either have to release Bush or try to sign him to a contract extension that would make this year’s cap figure more manageable. The presence of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Lynell Hamilton gives the Saints plenty of alternatives at running back.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Safety Darren Sharper, linebacker Scott Shanle, fullback Heath Evans, safety Roman Harper and tight end David Thomas.

Panthers back-to work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:10
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: No team in the NFC South faces a bigger challenge than the Panthers. They’ve got a new head coach (Ron Rivera) and new offensive and defensive systems. They’ve also got a very young team that has yet to work with the coaching staff. Teams with a new head coach are allowed a little extra offseason work, but the Panthers missed out on all of that. They were 2-14 last season, and it already looks like they’ll be playing catch-up throughout training camp and the preseason.

Biggest challenge: The Panthers drafted Cam Newton at No. 1 overall and they sure sounded like they wanted him to be the opening-day starter. That’s still possible, and Newton’s going to get every benefit of the doubt. But he needs to use training camp and the preseason to show he has at least some grasp of the offense before the Panthers will be willing to put him on the field. If Newton’s not ready, the Panthers might have to turn to Jimmy Clausen, who also has no experience in this offensive system. Or they might even have to bring in a veteran to at least start the first few games to buy Newton and Clausen some time.

Where’s Smitty? There have been conflicting reports about whether veteran wide receiver Steve Smith wants to stay with Carolina, the only team he’s ever played for. The ball really is in Smith’s court. The Panthers don’t feel they have to get rid of him, but they don’t want him stuck in a situation where he’s unhappy. It would be understandable if Smith, an intensely competitive guy, wants to go to a more experienced team. Smith’s had months to think about what he wants to do. As soon as it’s possible, he needs to sit down with the Panthers’ brass and let them know what he wants. If he wants to stay, they’ll be thrilled because it would give Newton and Clausen a top-notch receiver. If Smith wants out, the Panthers will try to accommodate him, but they’ll only let him go if they can get something decent in return.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Thomas Davis and linebacker James Anderson.

Vikings back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:08
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Since the end of last season, the Minnesota Vikings have promoted Leslie Frazier from interim to permanent head coach, revamped their offensive staff and forged a new path at quarterback. The lockout hasn't just cost Frazier the chance to set a new tone in the locker room. He's also been unable to get his offense introduced, much less installed, and will enter training camp with a truly blank slate at quarterback. For those reasons, the lockout has hit the Vikings as hard as any team in the NFL. It will be a struggle to bring their offense online.

Biggest challenge: One way or the other, the Vikings must quickly identify and prepare a Week 1 starting quarterback. Rookie Christian Ponder received a playbook during the one-day lockout respite in April, but he has still missed valuable offseason prep work. Ponder is said to be smart, but starting as a rookie in Week 1 is difficult enough even with a full offseason. Should the Vikings seek a short-term answer in free agency? At the very least, they'll need a backup plan if Ponder needs more time.

Peterson decision looming? Tailback Adrian Peterson is entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $10.72 million in 2011. Will the Vikings allow him to play out the final year of the deal? Will they offer him an extension, if for no other reason than to lower his salary-cap number? Those questions were intentionally put off until after the lockout. Well, we're here. Peterson's future with the team hangs in the balance.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.

Bears back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:07
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Chicago Bears have been playing the same defensive scheme, with some of the same key players, since coach Lovie Smith arrived in 2004. That familiarity is an important mitigating factor for the loss of offseason workouts, and players expect that consistency to give the Bears an early-season advantage. The Bears could have used another offseason to fine-tune their offense under coordinator Mike Martz, especially to give them a head-start on retooling their offensive line, but such is life. Quarterback Jay Cutler did his part by running skill-player workouts this spring in the Chicago suburbs.

Biggest challenge: You thought offensive line coach Mike Tice had a tough job last season patching together a starting lineup? He'll have to do it again this season, and with less time. The Bears hope to find a permanent solution earlier than they did in 2010, but as of today, none of the five positions has an obvious starter. Free agency will affect Tice's decisions, as will the development of rookie tackle Gabe Carimi. Where will former first-round pick Chris Williams play? Will center Olin Kreutz be re-signed? These questions must be answered -- and soon.

Just for kicks: The Bears have a decision to make at punter, a position occupied by Brad Maynard for the past 10 seasons. It didn't appear the Bears were eager to resign Maynard, 37, before the lockout. That could change given the quick turnaround between now and training camp, but it's also possible the Bears have their eye on his targeted successor. Maynard was a big part of the Bears' special-teams machine over the past decade and would be difficult to replace.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Caleb Hanie, center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Lions back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:06
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Coach Jim Schwartz has maintained the same offensive and defensive schemes since arriving in 2009, minimizing the mental cram factor in training camp. But significant transitions loom at several positions, and they will be rushed in less-than-ideal situations. The Lions need to establish three starting defensive backs, two linebackers and will also need to find a balance for their running back duo of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure.

Biggest challenge: I think someone once said that cornerbacks don't grow on trees. (Neither does money, I hear.) We've been over this issue before, but here are the facts: The Lions' top two cornerbacks currently under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nathan Vasher. Is that their plan for 2011? Will they be aggressive enough to land one of the few starting-quality free agents available? Is veteran Chris Houston more likely to re-sign? Perhaps, but the Lions have a complex problem to solve in quick fashion.

Obligatory Stafford reminder: It's been well-established that quarterback Matthew Stafford's right shoulder has healed after January surgery. He has looked buff during offseason workouts and is ready to resume his role as the Lions' franchise quarterback. At 23, Stafford is about the same age as 2011 rookies Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert. But two years of injuries have put Stafford into something close to a make-or-break season. He needs to stay on the field.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Cliff Avril, cornerback Chris Houston, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton.

Packers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:05
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Players felt confident enough to avoid any known group workouts during the lockout. Several players suggested they wouldn't go public with any grand plans even if they had them, but all indications are that most Packers worked out on their own this offseason. Coach Mike McCarthy supported that decision, saying conditioning and avoiding mishaps should be players' highest offseason priorities. It makes sense. The Packers are entering their sixth season in McCarthy's offense and their third in Dom Capers' defense.

Biggest challenge: The Packers are in pretty good shape. Their biggest challenge is the same whether or not they had a full offseason: Putting their Super Bowl victory in the proverbial rearview mirror and dedicating themselves to the kind of long-term success they appear built for. Players and coaches had every right to enjoy a celebratory offseason. Now it's time to flip the switch.

A true backfield rotation? When Ryan Grant has been healthy, McCarthy has strongly preferred a one-back system as opposed to rotating multiple runners into the game. Grant's season-ending ankle injury has healed, but is McCarthy planning to break the mold this summer? The Packers have a number of viable options to use either alongside or in place of Grant if and when they want, including 2010 postseason star James Starks. This Packers backfield arrangement will be one of the more closely watched areas of their training camp, especially by fantasy football players.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, running back Brandon Jackson, running back John Kuhn, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones.

49ers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:03
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The 49ers lag in this area for a team that has maintained relatively strong roster continuity over the past few seasons. San Francisco has a new head coach, three new coordinators (counting special teams) and one of the younger offensive lineups in the NFL. The 49ers needed minicamps and the offseason program as much as any team. The lockout was costlier for them. It's a tribute to Jim Harbaugh, his staff and the players if they open the season strong.

Biggest challenge: Getting Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and the offense synced up quickly will be tough. Smith, who plans to re-sign with the team once free agency opens, did all he could in meeting with Harbaugh before the lockout and leading player-organized workouts. Smith's smarts and team-first attitude made him an ideal candidate to communicate Harbaugh's plans to the players attending workouts. That all sounds great in June and July, but it's doubtful the impact will carry the team far. This is a tough situation for a first-time NFL head coach with an unaccomplished quarterback.

Don't forget the defense: Smith's leadership during player-organized workouts drew considerable attention. Meanwhile, Patrick Willis and the defense spent the offseason without access to playbooks. Their new coordinator, Vic Fangio, is known for favoring veterans with the experience needed to run his complex scheme. The 49ers will need their veterans on defense to learn quickly.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Alex Smith, linebacker Takeo Spikes, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, tackle Barry Sims, safety Dashon Goldson, defensive end Ray McDonald, offensive lineman David Baas, outside linebacker Travis LaBoy, offensive lineman Tony Wragge.

Rams back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:02
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Rams must acquire or develop starters at right guard, free safety, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end. They need depth at running back. They've got work ahead, but most of the heavy lifting has been done. The Rams return their quarterback and most of their offensive line while enjoying continuity on defense through head coach Steve Spagnuolo and key players in the front seven. That gives St. Louis a head start on its division rivals even though the Rams will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator.

Biggest challenge: Pat Shurmur's surprise departure as offensive coordinator threw up a hurdle heading into the Rams' second season with Sam Bradford behind center. The lockout has prevented new coordinator Josh McDaniels from getting Bradford up to speed as quickly as the team would have liked. The situation at wide receiver remains unsettled. The most promising tight end on the team, Lance Kendricks, faces a learning curve as a rookie. Those factors create challenges as the Rams seek to build on Bradford's promising rookie season. There's no need to panic, however.

Ownership impact: The Rams still haven't gone through a free-agent signing period since Stan Kroenke became majority owner. There's no indication the Rams will become significantly more aggressive in free agency now that Kroenke has given them an owner with deeper pockets. They do have the wherewithal, however, and the Rams should have some flexibility from a salary-cap standpoint. None of the team's own free agents will command big money this offseason.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Receiver Mark Clayton, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan, tight end Daniel Fells, tight end Billy Bajema, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Gary Gibson, receiver Laurent Robinson.

Cardinals back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: It's tough going this deep into an offseason without a starting quarterback. Any veteran the team acquires through trade or free agency will have relatively little time to learn the offense and adjust to his teammates. The Cardinals were so shaky at the position last season, however, that any significant upgrade behind center will energize the team. Moving quickly to land a quarterback will improve the Cardinals' readiness. But with key offensive linemen unsigned and a new defensive coordinator in place, the Cardinals face difficulties.

Biggest challenge: Ray Horton, the new defensive coordinator, will have relatively little time to establish the aggressive mentality he promised to instill when the Cardinals hired him. He'll also have an abbreviated window to install schematic changes and get players accustomed to his approach. Horton is the Cardinals' third defensive coordinator in four seasons, so continuity is an issue. Horton was already going to face challenges as a first-time coordinator. The lockout magnifies those challenges.

Who will Arizona target at quarterback? Reports strongly suggest Arizona will pursue Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb right away when the signing period opens. Speculation suggests a deal for Kolb was already in the works. What if it's not that simple? If the Eagles want too much in return and if acquiring another veteran such as Denver's Kyle Orton isn't a realistic option, then what? The Cardinals' prospects in 2011 rest on the team's ability to upgrade the position. Extending Larry Fitzgerald's contract will also be tougher without a viable quarterback.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Guard Deuce Lutui, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson, receiver Steve Breaston, center Lyle Sendlein.

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